Ran Prieur

"Do you want your heart to feel like it has been pulled across by a rasp? Then don't look away."

-Serial Experiments Lain


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July 5. After last week's pessimism about the internet, today I have some optimistic links about other technologies. Chemical space is big. If we consider all the ways that atoms can be put together into molecules, it's like that Borges story about a library that contains every permutation of characters:

The best guess for the number of plausible compounds up to molecular weight 500... is around 1060. That is a number that the human mind is not well equipped to handle. That collection, assembled into compound vials at, say, 10mg per vial, would exceed the amount of ordinary matter in the entire universe.

Acousto-electric devices reveal new road to miniaturizing wireless tech. A lot of the stuff that computers are now doing with electrons, could be done better with sound waves. Maybe this could save the internet, if we had to rebuild the entire information-processing infrastructure from the ground up, using sound computers, and later, quantum computers. And each rebuilding would force a re-simplification.

Simple, solar-powered water desalination "could provide more than 1.5 gallons of fresh drinking water per hour for every square meter of solar collecting area." It looks like it could also be done on a small scale, which is better politically, because everyone could desalinate their own water instead of depending on a centralized institution for their survival.

Michelin Puts Puffy Sails on Cargo Ships. "The project joins a growing fleet of wind-assisted propulsion initiatives around the world."

Even lower tech, a video about a Tree House Bicycle Elevator.

And Fluid Paint is a cool browser-based paint program.

July 2. For the weekend, drugs. Michael Pollan has a new book called This Is Your Mind on Plants, about three plant-based drugs: caffeine, opium, and mescaline. Greg sends this interview of Pollan by Tim Ferriss. It's loaded with good stuff, on subjects including the war on drugs, which was completely political, and the future of psychedelics after legalization, in which the original substances will be competing with proprietary substances that don't cure people but "mask symptoms or suppress symptoms for better business models." There's also a bit about how 90% of the world is currently mistaking caffeine consciousness for sobriety.

And music. The best song of 2021 is surely something I haven't heard yet, but from what I have heard, it's Kiwi Jr. - Omaha.

July 1. Continuing on the doomed internet, it's fitting that I have to link to the archive.org page of this paywalled article from the Atlantic, The Internet Is Rotting. It's mainly about broken links, but more generally it's about how the internet is not designed for long-term storage, and is really terrible at it, and yet a lot of good practices for long-term information storage have been abandoned because of the internet.

I've said this before: we are right now in a dark age, in the sense that future historians will have few surviving records from our time. Eventually, they won't even think the internet was real. They'll see it as myth or metaphor, like the Aboriginal Dreamtime, or Atlantis, or the Tower of Babel:

In ancient times, a series of tubes covered the whole world, through which anyone could talk to anyone. Great demons battled to control the tubes: the evil Google, the seductive Apple, the all-seeing Facebook, the crazy-making Twitter and the trickster god Trump. The people believed the mutterings of the Net over their own eyes, and the world fell into madness and strife.

More transitory links: Why some biologists and ecologists think social media is a risk to humanity.

The Future of Games is an Instant Flash to the past. It's about an attempt to revive browser games, which the author argues, were largely killed by Apple because they don't want us to have any fun without going through the app store.

Finally, a popular Hacker News thread, A foreign seller has hijacked my Amazon Klein bottle listing. An Amazon apologist comments that all you have to do to prevent this is pay $2000 for a USPTO trademark. The world wide web was designed for distributed bottom-up power, and it's getting to where nobody can participate except large institutions and criminals.

June 29. After some feedback from yesterday's post, it looks like I overstated the psychological factor in runaway complexity. The more powerful factors are economic and technological -- but they're really hard to explain. Probably nobody fully understands what's happening. This subreddit post, On complexity in software, mentions "technical debt from persistently going overly tactical vs. strategic," and the arms race with spammers.

An edited comment from Baltasar:

In industrial mass production, the more nails or screws you make, the cheaper each one of them becomes. In software, the costs go from a lot for the first copy to negligible. I'm trying to get at how there's something about software (and less so, other technology) that by making things more complex it also makes them cheaper. It's much easier to construct a complicated piece of software than a simple one; turns out the cost just got transformed into complexity.

More precisely, a piece of software that is extremely flexible, powerful, useful in many cases is also quite complicated. But the complexity does give something back, it allows a centralization of power, and there's something about having one hammer that works for all nails.

A couple people mention that when things get too complex, someone comes out with a stripped down alternative that takes over, and then in turn gets more complex. This has happened many times with music, but I can't think of any recent examples in IT. Do we really expect a new kind of computer and operating system, that's as simple as 1995, but you can still use it to check your bank balance and buy stuff online?

I actually think that zero-growth complexity is possible. Consider sharks. They've been the same for hundreds of millions of years, and we could do a lot with a social system, or a tech system, as complex as a shark.

But that's not going to happen this time around. And with no way to freeze complexity, or do a clean reset, it can only keep rising until there's a messy reset.

June 28. Returning the subject of the doomed internet, Greg comments:

What the heck are we doing, making things more and more complex, so that fewer and fewer people know how they work?

My beloved Ubuntu Linux, formerly elegantly simple, now has 4 packaging systems. I played with 'flatpak' yesterday to see new features in a PDF viewer I use constantly. I was confident that there would be no changes to my system - that's the whole idea of flatpaks.

It bricked my system in a way that I haven't seen in 20+ years of using Linux. It took me five hours to fix it - and I'm not sure exactly what happened because I had to take big whacks at the problem (ie. deleting entire caches).

Not long ago, these things were worse, but were at least understandable - I knew the boot process of my PC, email was plain text, and you could watch clients and servers communicate in plain text.

I think the reason things keep getting more complex, is the same reason that Elvis and Michael Jackson died. Both of them had a personal doctor, with only one patient, and each doctor got bored doing nothing, and had to justify his existence by doing a lot of unnecessary and ultimately harmful stuff. That's what engineers (and managers and executives) of tech companies are doing. If they don't make upgrades, they feel useless, and I guess it's really hard to upgrade something without making it bigger or more complicated.

Maybe in the future humans will be able to enforce a law that puts a hard ceiling on the size and complexity of systems. So a computer operating system is limited to X lines of code, or the laws of a nation are limited to X words, and going above that is a crime.

Until then, it's runaway complexity and collapse, over and over.

June 25. A few happy links for the weekend. Sleep Evolved Before Brains. That's because brains still haven't evolved. More seriously, sometimes I think sleep is the purpose of life, and the purpose of being awake is to gain nutrients and shelter for sleeping.

Two reddit threads. Was there ever a time you're thankful the pandemic happened? And from Ask Old People, What is something that was taboo when you were an adolescent but has become normalized today? It's mostly stuff that's good, or at least harmless. More generally, while I'm skeptical of technological progress, I'm a big believer in moral progress.

And a great NWSL goal, in which Ebony Salmon, an English player just subbed in for the first time, keeps the ball away from four defenders inside the box, and then basically passes to herself to set up the goal. Having watched a lot of men's and women's soccer, I think they're on the same level in terms of technical skill and creativity -- the men's game is just faster.

June 23. A new article on one of my favorite subjects, How to think about pleasure. It doesn't actually say how to think about pleasure. Rather, it's an overview of how philosophers have thought about pleasure through the ages, with emphasis on how many of them believed that pleasures of the mind are noble while pleasures of the body are trashy.

Yeah, they were wrong. Maybe in ancient times, the kind of people who sought bodily pleasures were more likely to do it carelessly, and rebound into pain. Now it's the opposite: people sit at screens all day chasing mental pleasures, rebounding into anxiety, and getting sick from ignoring their bodies.

There's more in the Hacker News comment thread, and some good stuff in this 2010 blog post on Richard Solomon's opponent-process theory of emotion. But I want to jump straight to my own beliefs.

I call my philosophy omniscient hedonism: the meaning of life is to feel good, while respecting the interests of others, and your future self, to also feel good.

Buddhism makes a valuable distinction between pain and suffering, where pain is inevitable and suffering is optional. Suffering is meta-pain, feeling bad about feeling bad. It's possible to interpret life's painful parts as the dissonant parts of a symphony.

Our tendency is to turn away from pain, and plunge headlong into pleasure. It's better to do it the other way around -- not to seek painful situations, but when you notice yourself feeling pain, dive straight into that feeling and try to burn it out. And when there's something you enjoy, don't burn it out, but tease it, stretch it out as long as you can.

I think a person's capacity for pain, and capacity for pleasure, are aspects of the same thing. The better you are at completely facing pain, and absorbing it, the better you are at feeling and appreciating pleasure. Or, the skill of feeling deeply applies equally to all feelings.

With mental health, it's hard to know what practices are actually working, and what practices are coincidental with improvement for some other reason. But I've made some headway against anxiety, and this improvement is at least coincidental with the practice of getting into a relaxed state, and focusing my attention on the pumping of my heart muscle. It also feels good.

June 21. Last week I said that social media, for reasons we don't fully understand, is bad for your mental health. In another post, I said that sports become less fun when rules written for human eyes are enforced by machine eyes. Now I'm thinking, those two ideas are the same subject.

Human social behavior has been evolving since we became social animals, before we even became human. Suddenly, our social behavior is being hosted and moderated by something that's not even biological, an alien algorithm not even fully understood by its human coders, with a cold eye that misses nothing and forgets nothing.

On top of that, the whole thing is being managed not for the benefit of humanity, but for the benefit of giant concentrations of money, trying to leverage their money/power into greater money/power by hijacking human attention.

So it's not surprising that people who spend a lot of time in this world are going insane in multiple ways, from anxiety and depression to mass delusion.

Related: The Lindy Effect. (web archive link) It's about people who, I think, are taking a simple idea too seriously in terms of guiding their behavior. But the idea is sound: things that go farther into the past are more likely to go farther into the future. So a play that's been running for five years is more likely to run for another five years, than a play that's been running for a week; and a human behavior that's thousands of years old is more likely to continue than one that's only a few decades old.

Of course, every long-running play has a first week. Some new things are so simple and great that they will still be around in a thousand years, including ball bearings, electric light, and the song "We Will Rock You."

But I think the internet is doomed. Every year it becomes more fragile, as it depends on a more complex technological infrastructure (both hardware and software) that fewer people understand. To knock it down, to the point where it will not fully recover, any of the following things will suffice:

1) Some nation with EMP weapons sees a clear benefit in using them. 2) Our planet takes a direct hit from a major solar flare. 3) There's a popular movement to sabotage fiber optic lines. 4) Through a general malaise or decline, humans are no longer competent to maintain information technology at the current level.

June 18. Off the usual subjects, I've been watching the Euro 2020 soccer tournament, and I want to argue that VAR (video review) is being misused for calling players offside. It happens in a lot of games now, that an exciting goal is called back when a high-tech screenshot reveals that an attacking player had a toenail stuck out farther than the last defender. It makes the game worse for both players and fans, and when the smart commentator points that out, the dumb commentator says, "Well, was he offside?"

My answer is, no, he wasn't. Because if you pull back your bean-counter perspective, and look at the offside rule as a part of a traditional game, then you see that the rule was written for human observers in real time. And a human observer can't see if a player is offside, unless it's by a foot or two. It follows that a player is not offside unless it's by a foot or two. The people who wrote the rule didn't write it that way, because they couldn't imagine machine observers.

More generally, when you change the method of perceiving, you have to change the rule, to prevent dysfunction. How fun would driving be if you got a speeding ticket every time you went 25.01 mph in a 25 zone? Soccer is being ruined in the same way.

So how do we fix it? For now, either VAR should not be used at all for offside, or the officials should have to review it with no slow-mo, no ability to pause the shot or draw a line across the field that no human can see.

In the future, with better tech, it would be cool if every player had a chip implant that buzzed when it was beyond the chip of the last defender, and that same data was used to make the call in real time. Then there would be no stalling of the game, and no reason for arguing.

June 16. A few more happy links. No Lawns is a subreddit about doing things other than lawns with your yard.

From my hometown newspaper, New strain of fungus helps regrow honey bee population.

Trials begin on lozenge that rebuilds tooth enamel.

And The rice of the sea is about a seagrass seed that's edible, surprisingly nutritious, and improves the ecology of places where it's grown.

June 14. Last week the Weird Collapse subreddit had its most upvoted post yet, The kids aren't alright. It's an image of some social media posts about how young people, in addition to their personal psychological problems, are objectively in a world threatened by climate change, economic collapse, and bad politics.

I have two pieces of obvious advice. First, avoid social media. For reasons we don't fully understand yet, it's bad for your mental health. Second, stop following national and international news, because it's almost all bad, and there's nothing you can do about it. A phrase I find helpful, to preserve my sanity, is "Not my circus, not my monkeys." Your actual circus and monkeys are local, and with the big systems hanging between gridlock and authoritarianism, it's in the small systems where good stuff can still happen.

My non-obvious advice is to read a holocaust memoir. Because it's probably not going to get that bad, and if it does, you'll see that people can still deal with it. I think Elie Wiesel's Night is overrated. The Maus comics are good, and my favorites are Speak You Also by Paul Steinberg, and From The Ashes of Sobibor by Thomas Blatt.

Related links: Disenchanted Chinese Youth Join a Mass Movement to 'Lie Flat'. And Upwards of 40% of workers are thinking about quitting their jobs.

On the local angle, The Rise of Remote Work May Reshape College Towns. I live in a college town and it's great. People have to leave because there aren't many jobs. But with remote work, or better yet, an unconditional basic income, the best towns will draw the best people and thrive.

And some grounds for optimism in this thread: What are some small, unnoticed ways we as a society have made social progress in the last two decades?

June 11. Matt comments on Monday's subject:

To me, the most obvious rebuttal to the tragedy of the commons is the roommate who picks up after everybody else. It sucks to be that guy. I've been that guy. But I wasn't going to wash a cup every time I wanted a cup.

The tragedy of the commons assumes no one will care about their surroundings unless they fully own them. It's a weird thing to assume.

It also speaks to a weird sick pattern of possessive people: they express care for others/things in proportion to how much they can control others/things. There's also the weird sick pattern of assigning value only to that which can be controlled.

This reminds me of a Steven Wright line: "I have the world's largest collection of seashells. I keep it on all the beaches of the world."

And some music for the weekend. The other day, on weed, I did an experiment, where I put this Seraphim Simulation into this YouTube looper, and play-tested a bunch of psychedelic music to see what made the best combo. The winner: Moon Duo - In The Trees.

June 10. Over on the subreddit, zeroinputagriculture has written a great explanation of why genetic engineering isn't as powerful as we think: Limits of eugenics. Basically, as with drug design, we can't just reverse-engineer any effect we want, even if we can build molecules atom-by-atom. Instead, we have to throw a bunch of molecules at the wall and see what sticks.

Related: an important YouTube video, The Myth of the Objective, about how great stuff is not achieved by aiming exactly at it, but found by accident in the process of seeking novelty.

So I'm thinking, if we get Homo Superior through biotech, it will be a lucky strike on cluster of changes that have synergy, and whatever those changes are, that's what humans will be next.

Down in the comment thread, there's a fascinating discussion about the possibility that one nation will come up with something that gives them a big short-term advantage, like the Nazis got with amphetamines -- or a long-term advantage, like a hack for mental health. From there, the discussion gets pretty weird.

I want to go a different direction, and say that the only enduring solution for mental health is a good society. I won't try to define that right now, but the way to have a good society through brain-hacking, is not to bend people's brains to fit a system that they wouldn't otherwise fit -- it's to bend people's brains to see the way out of a system that doesn't fit them, and into one that does.

June 9. Two tangents from Monday's post. First, on the subject of schooling, this is a great paragraph from a new Paul Graham essay, A Project of One's Own:

It's a bit sad to think of all the high school kids turning their backs on building treehouses and sitting in class dutifully learning about Darwin or Newton to pass some exam, when the work that made Darwin and Newton famous was actually closer in spirit to building treehouses than studying for exams.

And on the subject of eugenics, I've been reminded that the definition of that word is broad enough that it can point to two things with no overlap. First, you can have laws that say people with bad genes aren't allowed to procreate -- but inevitably, the definition of "bad genes" is calculated backwards from whatever makes the people in power uncomfortable.

Second, on a completely voluntary basis, we could use technology to improve the human genome. If biotech keeps progressing, this will turn into a huge issue, maybe the biggest issue of the 22nd century. Because after we fix obvious genetic diseases, like Huntington's, we'll get into stuff where the benefit is less clear. Do we want to eliminate sickle cell anemia, which also gives resistance to malaria? Is autism something to be cured, or a valid way of being human?

I expect trends, where the vat-babies of the 2190's have green eyes and wide noses. Or, if different populations go for radically different looks, it could exacerbate tribalism. (Is there a gene for tribalism?) Humans are short-sighted, especially when we're doing something new, so we're sure to make changes that seem to make humanity better, but end up making it worse.

And it's not like we can just tweak a gene to do whatever we want. Little changes will have cascading effects that we don't expect, so that everyone with the gene for pointy ears gets kidney failure.

Personally, I think DNA is overrated, and it will turn out that a big part of who we are, is neither genetics nor environment, but something we haven't discovered yet. Maybe in the 26th century, the biggest issue will be morphic field generators, or ancestral memory wipes.

June 7. Posted a couple weeks ago to Weird Collapse, The tragedy of the commons is a false and dangerous myth. Here's a 2008 article on the same subject, Debunking the 'Tragedy of the Commons', and here's how I've explained it before:

If you go out and look, land held in common tends to be managed well, and privately owned land tends to be exploited. But in 1968 a eugenicist named Garrett Hardin pulled a paper out of his ass that said exactly the opposite with no evidence, and the owning classes thought it was brilliant.

Does it matter that Hardin was a eugenicist? Yes, because it's the same kind of evil thinking. To support control of human breeding, you have to be comfortable that the people who will be doing the controlling, are people like you. So you have to be confident that you are a member of a justifiably power-holding class. Hardin also wrote a paper on "lifeboat ethics," again a thought experiment with no evidence, arguing that it's bad to give money to the poor.

Note that the ecological destruction of the modern era is not an example of the "tragedy of the commons," but the tragedy of central control and private property. Related, from 2007: Iain Boal: Specters of Malthus, a smart interview arguing that population only outruns food supply when there's non-local control of resources.

I should also say, to reduce the human population, we only need two things: easy access to birth control, and some way of supporting old people who don't have kids. If people don't need to have kids for economic reasons, and if women aren't forced to be baby factories, then the birthrate drops to sub-replacement.

More negative links. Amazon Prime Is an Economy-Distorting Lie. Basically, by forcing third-party sellers to keep their prices high, and charging them massive commissions, Amazon subsidizes its free shipping. Without illegal monopoly practices, Amazon's business model falls apart.

A lot of pandemic homeschoolers are not going back. On the same subject, by Rebecca Solnit, Abolish High School.

Finally, The Age of Autonomous Killer Robots May Already Be Here, because last year in Libya a weaponized drone hunted down a human target without being told to. If we want to avoid the normalization of killer robots, we need a law that explicitly denies robots the right of self-defense. So if you try to destroy a drone, the most it can do is take your picture and use it to bring charges for vandalism.

June 3. The other day I took my annual early summer LSD trip. My supply is low enough that I'm only doing it once a year now, but this time I decided to try a tab and a half. The only difference I noticed was that it came on a lot faster. I've still never hallucinated on any substance -- I see what everyone else sees, but differently.

I should also say, LSD is serious, and the younger you are, the bigger the risk. If you're over fifty, your brain is a rusty old engine, and psychedelics are like whacking it with a pipe to loosen it up. You wouldn't whack a cat with a pipe, and that cat is your sixteen year old brain. And unlike cannabis, LSD can bend your brain so it can't be bent back. Anyway, if you're going to do it, my advice is to stock up on fresh fruit, and go walk around outside.

First I took a walk downtown. I've never liked the metaphor that people are asleep, and should wake up. Metaphors should be based on something that makes sense literally, and literal sleep is wonderful. What I saw on my walk, is that humans are not so much asleep, as we are deeply unalive. I mean, we're getting better. But still, what a delicate balance, to be alive enough to set a good example for others, but not so alive that they kill you.

Then, as I always do, I walked up the river trail out of town. I was reminded of the Wallace Stevens line, "We live in an old chaos of the sun," and the Steven Wright line, "God is a huge amplifier and life is just feedback." Nature is not a temple. Nature is a filthy nectar-dripping riot, and human hedonism is pinched and clunky in comparison.

I don't do an RSS feed, but Patrick has written a script that creates a feed based on the way I format my entries. It's at http://ranprieur.com/feed.php. You might also try Page2RSS.

Posts will stay on this page about a month, and then mostly drop off the edge. A reader has set up an independent archive that saves the page every day or so.

I've always put the best stuff in the archives, and in spring of 2020 I went through and edited the pages so they're all fit to link here. The dates below are the starting dates for each archive.

2005: January / June / September / November
2006: January / March / May / August / November / December
2007: February / April / June / September / November
2008: January / March / May / July / September / October / November
2009: January / March / May / July / September / December
2010: February / April / June / November
2011: January / April / July / October / December
2012: March / May / August / November
2013: March / July
2014: January / April / October
2015: March / August / November
2016: February / May / July / November
2017: February / May / September / December
2018: April / July / October / December
2019: February / March / May / July / December
2020: February / April / June / August / October / December
2021: February / April